Marshland bordered little George Master’s childhood cottage. Schoolboy adventures led him to catch damp, clammy creatures like eels, frogs, and toads.
Thirty years later, in a crumbling mansion, Detective Chief Inspector George Masters wrote letters of apology to his wife. Dear Sarah, I have something to tell you…
The unfinished letters cluttered his desk.
At night, crooked secrets wriggled like toads into George’s mind. Midnight bade the toads crawl forward, nudging him towards madness.
George first met Sarah at his favorite pub, The Coach and Horses. While she blew out twenty-four candles on a chocolate cake, he celebrated a pay rise. Two summers later, crimson roses filled St. Peter’s church. Piers Courtway, Sarah’s childhood guardian, gave her away. Sarah went Goth, gliding down the aisle in black silk looking like a Devil’s concubine. George suffered hay fever and sneezed all over the priest.
He despised the home of Piers Courtway. Icy drafts in long hallways chilled George’s bones, and windows rattled in all twenty bedrooms of Ashstone Hall. Nettles sprouted up beside the stunted cherry trees flanking the gravel drive.
With gray hair and arthritis, Piers withered into senility. His bony fingers clutched walking sticks as he hobbled around his conservatory, struggling to remember his own name. Care workers ran his baths. Sarah spoon-fed him plum crumbles. George fixed broken pipes. Piers left personal items lying around, including his diary. George read the green, leather-bound volume.
Piers’ scrawled handwriting resembled twisted copperplate. Sarah had been only four when her parents died in a car crash, and Piers became her foster father. Like Sarah, Piers was the last of his line with no living family, but his ample trust fund could buy anything, including Social Services.
Sarah’s red hair grew curly, and her green eyes ever wider. Unable to quell the compulsion, Piers’ hands caressed her smooth, soft milk-white flesh. Page after page of his diary described how he stroked her hair, fondled her developing breasts, touched her thighs.
George shuddered in disgust.
After every “session” as Piers called it, he bought his foster daughter knickerbocker glories at seaside cafes. Famous auctioneers sold off his mother’s five emerald necklaces to fund her education. She kept three ponies in a field near her private school. Piers had made amends, in his own way.
George hurled Piers’ diary into a roaring fire, destroying evidence. Every last page crinkled and burned black, fading into white ash. The slimy toads of vengeance burrowed ever deeper into George’s mind, demanding justice.
Attempts to discuss Sarah’s childhood failed. Piers spent days simply sucking corners on woolen blankets. Sarah clamped her jaw shut. George dreaded local journalists finding out. Front-page news would wreck Sarah’s life. He bottled up his revulsion, the slippery toads poisoning his judgment, his happiness, his sanity.
Village locals had never suspected. Years back, Piers impressed his neighbors by restoring E-Type Jaguars. His tweed jackets smelt of oil and petrol, or tobacco from his pipe. Sarah kept the terrible secret.
Piers was ninety-four when a care worker discovered his mutilated remains in the library. He had been stabbed five times in the back of his neck and shoulders with a ten-inch carving knife. Splatters of blood stained a first edition of Bleak House lying forgotten on a rosewood table.
Sarah wept for days, her eyes bloodshot, her face pale.
George directed the police investigation. No suspects were questioned. No killer caught. No motive established. No murder weapon found. No juicy articles in newspapers. The unsolved case remained an enigma.
After the reading of the will, Sarah popped a cork, grinning as she sprayed fizzy champagne all over George. He grinned too when she bought him a Harley-Davidson for his birthday, and took him to The Maldives for Christmas. After inheriting Ashstone Hall and all her guardian’s other assets, she bought ten thoroughbred racehorses with dividends from her extensive share portfolio.
Despite George’s demands, Sarah refused to sell the place. Piers must have wanted her to keep the property, she argued. Recordings of his favorite classical music, including Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” tinkled across dusty rooms. George preferred Jimi Hendrix strumming the electric guitar.
George, happier down the pub drinking cider with his mates, struggled with life in the big house.
Nightmares blighted his sleep. Stern gothic carvings on their four-poster bed glowered like gargoyles. Sarah closed off the library, turning bookcases into tombs. Every week, she took in vases of flowers, scenting stale air with sweet smells of hyacinths and lilies.
One winter morning, George added logs to the fire and settled in his armchair. Smells of Sarah’s Sunday roast, giblet gravy, and homemade Yorkshire pudding wafted in from the kitchen.
Sarah called him for lunch. Her rib of beef filled a silver platter. On the mahogany sideboard, an antique blue and white ginger jar held Piers’ ashes. George’s mind slipped back into the past.
As a police officer, he dealt with many cases which involved men who preyed on children. In three separate incidents, young girls living in town had been raped and murdered. George snared each killer. After reading Piers’ diary, he had been a wild pagan god, brooding, watching Piers, cursing the vile man. Five pints of cider boosted George’s courage. He had grabbed a carving knife from the kitchen and stabbed Piers to death. Blood spurted everywhere. Shaking with horror at what he had done, George wiped away his fingerprints and buried the knife deep under ferns near a yew tree.
George tried to focus on the fine meal Sarah had made and ignore the ginger jar. In his hands he balanced their new carving knife, his fingertips tracing the sharp steel blade. He trembled, taking slow, deep breaths, his stomach churning. How long could he hide his own guilt? He made his choice.
Sarah kissed George’s cheek. “I found a toad crawling under loose floorboards in the library,” she said. “I hope it doesn’t curse us all.”